Things are not going swimmingly well for cod off the province’s south coast.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) held a technical briefing Tuesday in St. John’s on the latest scientific information regarding the fishing zone 3Ps cod stock.
While the cod stock has improved slightly since 2015, the total mortality (combined removals from fishing activity and natural mortality) remains high.
If that trend continues over the next three years, the spawning stock biomass in 2020 and 2021 is expected to decline into the critical zone from the cautious zone where it currently sits.
While environmental conditions may have some impact on the lack of significant growth in the 3Ps cod stock, inshore fish harvesters place the blame squarely on offshore draggers.
The Fish Food and Allied Workers’ union (FFAW-Unifor) says DFO must ban offshore draggers from the area to protect the weakened stock.
“The cod stocks in 3Ps are in a vulnerable state and the federal government must protect the resource and the communities adjacent by removing the offshore draggers from fishing in the area,” said FFAW-Unifor president Keith Sullivan.
The call for draggers to be banned from fishing in the area, particularly during times when the fish gather to spawn, has been a continuous cry for years.
There has been a ban from fishing in recent years for part of the season when spawning is thought to take place, but inshore harvesters says that is not enough.
Alfred Fitzpatrick, a fish harvester from Garnish, says the 3Ps region is struggling economically and coastal communities must be the primary beneficiaries of the cod fishery. He said if the cod stock fails, the draggers have the ability to fish other areas, unlike local inshore harvesters.
“Without this small quota of cod many of the enterprises in our area won’t survive,” Fitzpatrick said. “The draggers will just move onto another area or another fishery, but where are we supposed to go?”
The Groundfish Enterprise Allocation Council, meanwhile, says its members have supported consistent reductions in 3Ps TAC to match the downturn in the cod stock.
This included a 50 per cent reduction in 2016/2017 and further drop for the 2017/2018 season. The council said while its members have demonstrated a willingness to make sacrifices for the long-term health of the stock by reducing their catch by 64 per cent, other sectors have used the opportunity to only increase their removals.
Although the greater than 100-foot sector only has 14 per cent of the TAC for 3Ps cod, it states, that small share goes a long way towards employment and stability for the industry
“Our small share of quota is vital in extending employment and securing premium markets,” explained Alberto Wareham, President and CEO of Icewater Seafoods in Arnold’s Cove. “It keeps 210 people working and food on the table during the winter months when no other NL cod is available to be processed.”
DFO fisheries management will now consult with industry and discuss the latest stock assessment information before setting a total allowable catch (TAC) and other management actions.
The 3Ps fishing zone extends from Cape St. Mary’s to just west of the Burgeo Bank, and over St-Pierre Bank and most of Green Bank.
Total reported landings of cod in 3Ps for 2017-18 were 5,000 tonnes, down from 6,300 tonnes in 2016-17.
The TAC is shared with St-Pierre-Miquelon.
Karen Dwyer, biologist with DFO’s groundfish section, says the ecosystem in 3Ps remains under reduced productivity conditions, with low levels of phytoplankton and zooplankton since 2014. These are the basis of the food chain.
Dwyer noted, however, there are some improvements in biological indicators for cod, such as their condition and diet.
That information comes not only from the DFO surveys, but from fish harvesters’ logbooks, questionnaires that the harvesters fill out, and the cod tagging program.